For the love of pets


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The connection between people and their pets is as old as time, and new benefits are reported every day, especially for seniors.

Now, imagine a medication that could do all this:

  • Replace loneliness with belonging by providing care to another living thing.
  • Prevent isolation by being needed and valued.
  • Feeling useful and responsible, which is often missing when all meals, cleaning and “thinking” seem to be done for you.
  • Provide unconditional love and devotion in a society that marginalizes older people.
  • Be an outlet for productive nonverbal communication, even if you have speech or hearing difficulties.
  • Attract others, break the social ice and promote conversation and reminiscing with others.
  • Reconnect you with a sense of fun and playfulness that defies any chronological age! What is this miracle drug? A pet!

General health benefits of pets

Pets have long been proven to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, feelings of loneliness and provide opportunities for exercise and socialization. A recent study at the University of Guelph sampled seniors living at home over the course of one year. Those owning a pet averaged 30 uses of healthcare services, at an average cost of $530, compared to 37 uses, averaging $694, for nonpet owners. The average length of hospital stay was eight days among pet owners versus 13 days for nonpet owners. Pet owners also reported the lowest incidence of psychological symptoms such as stress and anxiety, while nonpet owners reported the highest; in addition, pet owners reported higher self esteem and feelings of well being.

Daily dog walking may help seniors maintain better mobility later in life. In a recent study, one third of seniors who owned dogs and walked their dogs at least three times per week walked more rapidly and longer—at least 150 minutes per week. Three years later, this group was twice as likely to continue walking at least 150 minutes per week. Meaningful activities—such as the need to walk a dog—motivate more activity, resulting in a healthier weight and lower stress and blood pressure levels, as well as overall better heart health.

Benefits for dementia patients

A study of Alzheimer’s patients using a therapy dog resulted in increased socialization, improved social behaviours and decreased agitation. Not only did problem behaviours decrease over the course of the four week study, but Alzheimer’s patients who were living at home also displayed less verbal aggression and fewer mood disorders when they had regular contact with a companion animal—a boon to both patient and caregiver.

Meaningful activities—such as the need to walk a dog— motivate more activity, resulting in a healthier weight and lower stress and blood pressure levels, as well as overall better heart health.

Pets as medical specialists

Doctors, nurses, support workers, therapists … and animals? When it comes to better health, not all members of the team walk on two legs. Animals are increasingly becoming a part of therapies designed to help both the body and mind—not to mention how we diagnose and manage disease. We’re used to seeing dogs with jobs (such as police dogs or guide dogs), but there are many ways that animals are making a difference. Here are a few ways in which animals are improving the health and well being of their human companions.

When it comes to better health, not all members of the team walk on two legs.

Sounding the alarm

For people with type 1 diabetes, a drop in blood sugar can be dangerous. But not everyone can recognize the symptoms of these episodes, especially if they’re asleep when they happen. Enter the nose. Dogs can detect a change in body chemistry and alert their human companions about a drop in blood glucose levels before things get serious.

Dogs warn with behaviours such as pawing, nudging, pacing or putting their head in an owner’s lap. They might even wake their owner up in the middle of the night with a testing kit in their jaws. Dogs can also warn people who suffer from frequent seizures, allowing them to lie down or find a safe area.

Screening for cancer

Scientists continue to investigate how dogs can sniff out some forms of cancer. Cancer cells discharge different “waste products” than normal cells, and these are released through our skin, breath and urine. Dogs can be trained to detect these biochemical markers, even in the earliest stages of disease.

Recent studies report that dogs can detect a molecule produced by prostate tumours with a higher degree of accuracy than controversial PSA tests. Other research has found that dogs can detect disease in breath samples from patients with breast cancer or lung cancer, chemicals emitted by the skin in skin cancer and urine from those with bladder cancer.

Offering comfort

It’s a win-win situation: pets love the attention, and people benefit from some snuggle time and unconditional love.

Patients who receive regular visits from furry, finned or feathered friends have a better quality of life, sleep and eat better, are more social and participate in more activities. Just follow a pet visitor bearing a dog, cat or bird and see the smiles break out. Note the peaceful faces watching a tank of colourful tropical fish.

Meeting the challenge

It’s no secret that the upcoming cohort of retirees—the War Babies and the Baby Boomers—will expect all their desires to be met, and pets will be a priority. The retirement industry must be ready with policies and programs that welcome and incorporate pets, and “sell” this feature as an important amenity. If allergies are a concern, homes may choose non allergenic breeds of animals. If your loved one is a pet lover, look for a home where:

  • residents are allowed to keep small pets, provided they can provide or arrange suitable care
  • “house” pets are encouraged—many homes already have a dog in their lobby
  • “petshare” arrangements are possible among residents—one small dog or cat can be “timeshared,” sharing the time commitment, expenses and caring
  • pets are welcome to visit anytime—many residents “bequeath” their pets to their adult children, but would still like to see their pet
  • day trips are offered to visit the local pet store
  • residents are allowed to babysit small pets during the school holidays
  • there is a “reverse” pet visiting program in place, where local children can visit, learn about and help care for residents’ pets
  • visits to the local animal shelter are encouraged—volunteers are always needed to play with and exercise pets, act as “cuddlers” for new puppies and kittens or take sedate walks with senior shelter dogs.

And what about our friends and their pets?

Scenario 1

Hans and his cat, Tootsie, have shared a lot in the past five years— his wife’s illness and death, his increasing dementia and their move to a retirement home. Now, after a severe stroke, Hans needs more care in a nursing home that forbids pets. What will become of Tootsie?

p>Hans’s cat Tootsie became the resident cat in the dementia unit of the retirement home and is a permanent fixture in the common room. She seems to know who needs comfort, seeking a certain lap or prowling the halls for a welcome visit. She recently—and mysteriously—produced a litter of kittens. This has electrified the residents and keeps them busy all day, playing with and tending them.

Scenario 2

Retired professor Ralph found Eubie, a skinny stray dog, 10 years ago in the university parking lot. Downsizing into a retirement suite is going well, except that Eubie won’t emerge from under the bathroom counter. “If Eubie doesn’t like it, I guess it’s not right for me either.”

Eubie has pioneered a “reverse” pet visiting program. Ralph’s retirement home hosts a reading club with the local primary school, many of whom are immigrants. Ralph’s “student,” a shy six-year-old from Sri Lanka, shed his fears and bonded immediately with Eubie, luring him out of the bathroom and creating impromptu vocabulary lessons for both pupil and teacher. Eubie is now on duty every weekday morning and both he and Ralph are in their element.

Scenario 3

Pamela is devoted to her tiny Jack Russell terrier, Ben, but while walking him on an icy day, she fell and broke her hip. During her stay in rehab, little Ben was farmed out to her reluctant kids. “If they won’t take Ben, I won’t move anywhere.” Her frustrated daughter fumes, “That blasted dog will be the death of Mum—and of me!”

Pamela’s daughter made a detailed search of nearby heavy care retirement homes, asking which ones would accept pets. She managed to convince a nearby home that a three pound, non-shedding dog was no more trouble than a cat, and arranged for a twice daily dog walking service that also offers doggie daycare and boarding. Adorable Ben has made Pamela into quite a celebrity. She is actively participating in rehab with the goal of walking Ben again, and as they “hold court” in the lobby waiting for the dogwalker, everyone stops for a visit and a chat.

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About Pat M. Irwin, BA, CSA

Pat M. Irwin, BA, CSA, is President of ElderCareCanada, a certified eldercare mediator, and affectionate owner of a miniature schnauzer.

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